2:30am starts. Explosives. Pulling skiers out of avalanches. It’s just a typical day at the office for ‘Coffey’, the 66-year-old director of snow safety at Crested Butte, Colorado, in winter and at Portillo, Chile, in summer
I’ll normally know the day before if it’s going to be an ‘on call’ morning. If it’s storming, I’ll get up at 2.30am, look at the satellite radar and at the ‘pow cam’ we have at the base of the High Lift T-bar and work out how much snow and wind we’ve had overnight. We have avalanche terrain that sits above ski runs and we want the lifts to open at 9am, so I have to make a call by 3.30am if we have to do avalanche mitigation work with explosives.
Sometimes I’ll call the cat drivers working through the night to help make a decision, and I will leave the team a voicemail message that everyone can access. I don’t just call in ski patrol but lift operators and mechanics, too.
Three or four of us will meet to get up to the Ski Patrol HQ, to the side of the Silver Queen chairlift, at 5am. We’ll go by snow mobile, via a route that takes us under Paradise Cliffs, which is an avalanche path. We’ll all be wearing transceivers. I want to judge how much snow there is – and I have to assess whether it’s safe. Some guys on the ski patrol live in Gunnison, a larger town around 30 minutes’ drive from the ski resort, but everyone is up at Ski Patrol HQ by 6am. We have 28 people on any given day, but on an avalanche morning we will often bring in extra staff.
Crested Butte has complicated terrain and a continental snow climate that is extremely cold and dry, so the snowpack can be described in two words: shallow and weak. We have persistent slab problems in the mid and base layers – the snow is generally faceted [due to strong changes in temperature from the ground to the surface of the snow]. The ground layer is often composed of square-faceted grains or depth hoar – round grains of snow are better at bonding together than square ones. Crested Butte has one of the most dangerous snowpacks on the planet – before the storms arrived last season we had 90cm (3ft) of snow, mostly air on air.
We can’t legally use explosives until first light – it’s the powder day alarm clock for the locals – and our priority is to get the main mountain open, then go up the High Lift, then North Face T-bars. We start working on those zones – getting the easily accessible ones open. After a big fall it might take a few days to get through the whole mountain.
I’ll give everyone the 24hr snow amount and critical values in wind and they’ll decided how many explosives they want to take. We’re normally looking at anywhere between 15-30cm (6-12in) of snow with wind, which is also a big factor in Crested Butte. The weather comes from the west – the Pacific.
Everyone works their own routes in teams of two, with each team responsible for three routes that they keep all season – each with a ‘blaster in charge’. We document all the work we do, all the explosives we get through.
I achieved my avalanche certification in Canada, and everyone who works at Crested Butte Ski Patrol has a Type 1 Colorado explosives permit. I travel a lot with my jobs and I always have trouble at airports because my clothes are impregnated with explosives. It’s a hazard of the job but I know to always take extra time when I’m flying!
I take two or three months off each year to seek out sunshine, visiting beaches, deserts and wearing flip-flops – I like to get away from people. Last fall I went to Colombia.
My father was a military doctor, and I came to skiing late, aged 18. I started climbing while I was living in Boulder (four hours’ north of Crested Butte) and it went from there. I went to med school for a term in Mexico – my brother is a doctor, my sister is a nurse – but I missed the mountains.
I started climbing, and guiding big peaks in Peru and Bolivia in the 1980s. I’ve been to the Himalayas, Tibet and Nepal and was a member of the 1994 Razor’s Edge Everest Expedition. My partner, a female physician from Seattle, and I climbed to almost 8,534m (28,000ft) on the Australian route, travelling directly up Everest’s North Face. In 1987 I was a member on an expedition to the sixth highest peak in the world – Cho Oyu in Tibet – and in 1990 was on an expedition to Kangchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. On summit day, from 7,925m (26,000ft) we were forced down by the first storm of the monsoon season.
I first came to Crested Butte when I was 26. I love skiing and I’m really spoiled because I have the keys to a heli in Portillo, famous for its off-piste. Like everyone, I like to ski powder but you could describe me as a conservative skier – although guiding is different to when you’re with mates. I don’t redline the fun-o-meter when people are paying me to guide them – that said, I never stop paying attention.
We don’t use numbers to grade the avalanche risk in the US like you do in Europe, but rather use ‘low’, ‘moderate’, ‘considerable’, ‘high’ and ‘extreme”. We have an exchange programme with Courchevel for a couple of weeks each year, where we share knowledge.
Most of the guys on ski patrol have taken rides [been caught in a slide]. We all carry avalanche transceivers and from the start of this season the Crested Butte Ski Patrol will all be equipped with avalanche airbag packs (I’m on my third air bag in Chile).
The teams in Crested Butte are all very methodical and know avalanche safety – I’m up top during the day, monitoring all the teams from the patrol hut. Someone might call in a storm slab, and we have to be very thorough in areas like the Third Bowl.
I’ve been involved in some huge rescues. I was the first responder after a huge slide in Alaska, at Turnagain Pass. I’ve lost friends in avalanches and have pulled dead skiers out of slides – skiers who have skied out of bounds or in closed areas.
Not long ago we lost a patrol guy here, a friend. He was on his own, skiing powder in a closed area while he was on duty. I was the one who pulled him out – it was pretty grim.
I’ve been caught in several slides in Alaska, once when I was guiding on a peak called Comet, and another time when I was guiding near Alyeska Resort where now there’s a run called Coffey Grinder, named after me.
It can take a few days to open the whole mountain – sometimes the storm cycle will last days, all of which are ‘on call’, and I don’t finish until 5pm. On a sunny day in Crested Butte we have a huge problem with the solar effect on snow, particularly in March and April. We have to monitor the slopes for wet avalanche potential and close them off during the day.
When I’m done, I like to wind down with a nice glass of wine. Working in Chile you get used to good wine. I like a Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, which is only three hours’ drive form Portillo. I like to get home, cook, chill out and comfy down. I go to bed super early when it’s a storm cycle – it’s a long day.
That said, my life has been a constant struggle against boredom. I’m blessed to still be doing what I love, and at 66 I have no plans to retire.
Words: Abigail Butcher